Jackie Siegel has had a very bad summer. In June, she thought her life was finally getting back together. After starring in Lauren Greenfield's film The Queen of Versailles, a documentary that followed Jackie and her time-share mogul husband David Siegel as they tried to build the largest home in America, she and her husband entered a nasty public fight with Greenfield about how they'd been depicted in the film. The fight was finally over; Jackie was making TV appearances in Celebrity Wife Swap, taking business meetings in Los Angeles, building her social media following, and working with Orlando-based filmmakers Jason Jack Underwood and Jacob Engels on online videos--then in July, her 18-year-old daughter Victoria died of a drug overdose.
The press refused to allow Jackie to mourn in private. She was photographed looking at her phone outside Victoria's funeral, and bloggers republished the image, gleefully accusing her of taking a selfie--an interpretation Jackie denies. But Jackie refuses to let cynical depictions stop her from grieving or from trying to make something positive of her daughter's death. This month, she launches Victoria's Voice Foundation, an organization to help teens struggling with drug addiction.
Jackie has overcome intense struggles in her life. Before she married David, before she decided to build Versailles, she grew up in a middle-class family in New York. She studied engineering in college, and IBM hired her as one of their first female engineers. Bored at work, she quit to become a model. She started dating a Wall Street guy, married him, and moved to Florida. According to Jackie, he became controlling and forbid her from leaving the house. To prevent her from modeling and making her own income, she says he slashed her face. But Jackie didn't let him prevent her from living her life: She bravely escaped from his mansion without a penny to her name and rebuilt her modeling career. It was only after all of this that she met David.
Jackie has worked hard, and if she falls into any stereotype of women, it's not the housewife or dumb blonde--it's the role of the survivor. In an exclusive statement to Broadly, Jackie promised to also survive this tragedy: "Our family is still heartbroken and mourning. Victoria was such a caring and loving soul. We are working to build the Victoria's Voice Foundation so that we can help individuals struggling with substance abuse. Victoria gave so much to so many, and we are channeling that positivity and dedication to help those who need that positive energy and support."
I initially spoke to Jackie earlier this summer in a lengthy phone interview. Over the course of our conversation, Jackie told me about her identity as a survivor, her middle class roots, and life after The Queen of Versailles.
Broadly: The public knows you as a wealthy wife, but you also worked as an engineer at IBM and then, later, as a model. How did you like working as a woman at IBM?
Jackie Siegel:I was one of the only women there, except for the secretaries. It was an all-men's world back then--still a lot of engineers are mostly men anyway--but I was the only female in my curriculum that graduated [at college]. Everyone else was male, and unfortunately I didn't have time to take advantage of all these men because I was too busy studying and working my way through school.
Why did you decide to leave IBM and become a model?
When I worked at IBM I was unhappy. It wasn't fun. The life there was like, "You go bowling on Thursdays, [eat] pizza on Friday." It's just the same thing around all the [same] people--I lived in a small town. One morning when I went to work--I went early--and my boss was there early. I said, "What project are you working on?" (He was working [on his] personal time.) It was a program to count down all the years, down to the second, until he could retire. I said, "Well, why would you write a program for that?" He said, "Cause that's when I'm going to start living my life."
We're all in control of our own lives and our paths. So I quit, and I moved to New York City [to become a model]. But when I was in New York City, I did get a job at Citibank and Citicore headquarters--it's a computer help desk there, just so at least I had a job until I had enough [income] from my [modeling] job coming in. I had to establish myself with an agency and get my portfolio together, so in the meantime I worked at the Citicore headquarters.
Your first husband abused you. How did you get the courage to escape his house and divorce him?
I met my first husband on Wall Street, and then he was jealous of my independence that I got from modeling--making my own money and stuff. So he wanted to move me to a place where he could hide me and then take me out of the closet when he wanted [arm candy at] parties and whatever. Of course, I was unhappy being in that environment; I felt like I was in a retirement community where nothing's going on. It was like in the Everglades.
From IMB to your first husband to the recession, you've yet to have a stable life, but you've been able to overcome every problem thrown at you. How do you keep reinventing yourself?
I am a survivor. I do what it takes to get what I want--in a good way. I don't use people or anything like that.
The public hasn't seen you as a survivor. They've mostly portrayed you as a dumb wife unaware of your husband's financial issues. What's your response to their depictions?
Of course, after the fact people could say, "Oh yeah, I saw [the recession] coming, but no one would believe me or listen to me." I'm sure there are people out there that maybe could see it coming, but we certainly didn't. That was when the banks were basically giving away money--to everyone. To people who couldn't even afford mortgages, they were giving it to them!
Since the film came out, how have your family finances looked?
Actually, the economy changed for the better, and now my husband's company is worth over like four billion dollars. He went out on a spending spree, and he bought the Las Vegas Hilton, which is a 3,000-room hotel, and he bought a football team. (He bought the Orlando Predators.) And he bought the Cocoa Beach Pier, which is a really famous pier [in Cocoa Beach]! He's investing a lot of money into the pier, and Cocoa Beach is becoming like a lot nicer of a place to visit now.
Are you still working on Versailles?
We still have like two more years [of construction]. The outside of the house is pretty much completed. [During the recession, the house] got neglected. So not only is it under full construction, but it's also going through renovation at the same time. It's kind of unusual.
Yeah. Is it a nuisance having to wait so long for it to be finished or is it just part of life now, waiting for the house?
It's just part of life. It's one of the things that has been up and down in my life. I think from going through my divorce--I lost so much of my personal things, as my husband just kind of kept everything, including pictures and stuff--I had to learn how to not be attached to material things.
The movie made material possessions seem important to you. Is it true you and your husband hated the film?
My husband just hates it because it's not a true depiction of what happened in that period of time. It looked like his company was going under, where he just had to make a business decision and get rid of that one building in Las Vegas, but he still had 27 other resorts. They didn't show that. They showed that one salesroom that was empty and made it look like all his employees were laid off, whereas there was another salesroom right next to it which was full, but they didn't show that.
It hurt the company's image.
You've lived a very extreme life filled with extreme highs and extreme lows, from being the only girl at IBM to being a model to escaping an abusive relationship to marrying your husband to nearly losing everything to the movie. What's your life philosophy to survive everything?
Have your goals. [Reach] for the stars, and maybe if you don't reach 'em, you still get the moon. You get halfway. I never wanted to go through my life saying, "What if I had moved to New York?" or regretting that I didn't go when I was young. And I don't want to go through life regretting something that I had total control to go ahead and do, cause if you don't go out there and try--even if you don't make it--you would never know. You'd spend the rest of your life not knowing whether something, whether you would have succeeded or not.